Originally, this article was going to be considerably different, until research suddenly swerved in a different direction. That direction is to reinforce a fundamental military truth:
Artillery was, is, remains and will remain, the “King of Battle.”
The original concept for this article was an examination of towed 120mm mortar systems, specifically as used by the United States Marine Corps. However, the Marine Corps has divested itself of the M327 “Expeditionary Fire Support System” (EFSS) 120mm Towed Mortar, in favor of the UVision HERO-120 ‘Loitering Munition’.
While retaining the “Dragon Fire II” vehicle-mounted 120mm mortar, the reading on the rationale behind these decisions stands testament to an unacceptable failure by the military establishment in the United States to focus on reality.
Since combat operations commenced in Afghanistan in 2001, the US military in general has drilled down to a focus almost exclusively on “counterinsurgency operations” (COIN). Although pointedly left unsaid in public, this is a reaction to the fact that the US military establishment essentially abandoned COIN operations in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, to focus exclusively on the perceived threat of a Soviet invasion to Western Europe, and the assumed nuclear exchanges that would follow. In the aftermath of the 9/11 Attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deteriorating into guerilla conflicts, the US military swung the pendulum 180° in the opposite direction from the 1980’s.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Francis Fukuyama foolishly proclaiming the “End of History”, although rarely spoken out loud, military forces were seen as almost redundant anachronisms in many quarters, and should be reduced both in scale and capabilities, rendering them as something like heavily-armed police forces, with the occasional, movie-ready SWAT teams for hostage rescue. Combat operations like the first Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom were seen as aberrations, large operations against technologically inferior despot forces with lots of heavy (if antiquated) weapons and gear, and lots of troops, who – if not very well-trained or motivated – at least had plenty of simple weapons, and who would require somewhat more force than the international equivalent of a beat cop holding up their hand and saying “HALT!” in a loud voice.
While we are not going to delve too deeply, here, into the politics of this year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia is currently – by their own counts (which should, of course, always be taken with a large grain of salt) – running an average of c.580 fire missions per day. Assuming that these missions are run according to Russian military doctrine, each of these missions are a “battery shoot” involving a battery of four to six weapons. Roughly 30% of these would be rocket artillery, mostly from BM-21 ‘Grad’ type rocket systems, with the remainder fired by conventional “tube” artillery [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artillery]. Using the most conservatively realistic figures, this equals approximately 7,000 conventional artillery rounds being fired.
This come out to over 200,000 rounds in a 30-day period.
In contrast, the Western democracies have “bet the farm” on weapon accuracy, developing “precision everything” in mortar, rocket and conventional artillery rounds. They chose this route, because the conventional news media is ecstatic over images of dead civilians, which is much more likely when using “dumb” weapons. Needless to say, such casualty-limiting precision comes at a price: the M982 “Excalibur” 155mm precision-guided artillery round costs anywhere from US$68,000 to $175,000 per round (depending on who is counting).
In the West, conventional “dumb” artillery rounds cost between US$300 and $1,000 each. This, of course, begs the question: is “smart” better than “dumb“?
Certainly – if you can afford it. Can the West?
Currently, following the defense budget cuts in FY2022 by the Biden administration, artillery ammunition procurement is being cut by some 36%. In the very best case scenario, this means that the United States currently produces enough ammunition in a calendar year for anywhere between ten days and three weeks of combat firing, based – again – on the most conservative take on Russian claims of artillery fire missions and estimated rates of ammunition expenditure in Ukraine. And the United States is sending ammunition to Ukraine to go along with the 155mm howitzers and other weapons we are already supplying.
And the US is not alone. In 2021, the British Army conducted a large-scale, “main force” wargame where they completely exhausted national stocks of critical ammunition – at the national level – in eight days. Similarly, only about 2,100 units of the vaunted Javelin missile are produced each year – and the Ukrainians are claiming to fire “hundreds” of Javelins daily, leaving the US defense industry scrambling to bring new production streams online. The FIM-92 Stinger anti-aircraft missile is in a similar situation.
Worse still, Russia is known to have fired over 1,000 “cruise missiles” since invading the Ukraine proper in February of 2022. Even given the highly questionable reports of those firings’ performance, it is clear that the Russian industrial base is still more than capable of supplying the weapons and ammunition to the firing lines (the logistical aspects of this are an entirely different subjects).
In contrast, the US currently purchases 110 Precision Strike Missiles (PrSM) for the MLRS and HIMARS systems, 500 AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) and 60 venerable BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles annually for FY2022, meaning that in six months, Russia has fired more than the US’s total production of similar systems.
It is vital to keep in mind, again, that the technical accuracy and reliability of the Russian arsenal is not the question, here. The fact is that they are able to maintain production and consumption rates of comparatively “dumb” systems – and firing something at the enemy is better than firing nothing, because you’re waiting on resupply.
The conclusion here is clear: the West is functionally trying to counter Russian aggression from a hospital bed, while ignorant children are playing with its life support equipment.
This is not 1939, and the West is no longer the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Ukraine is paying, and will continue to pay, a heavy price for trusting the modern-day Western states…and unless something is done quickly, the people of the West may well pay that price, as well – assuming that we do not pay an even heavier price.